Public Waits Hours for Chance to Pay Respects
By Eric Rich and Allan Lengel
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 10, 2004; Page A27
After the dignitaries had left, after the speeches were over and Margaret Thatcher had curtsied to her old friend, the Capitol Rotunda became a place where regular people brushed quietly, quickly with history.
Admirers waited in line for hours, much of that time in sweltering heat, before the chamber was opened to the public shortly before 9 p.m. As midnight passed and morning arrived, many waited still. A line from the Capitol snaked down to the Reflecting Pool at the base of the West Lawn.
Ronald Reagan's coffin lay in the center of the chamber, on a pine bier constructed for Abraham Lincoln. A five-member honor guard stood at attention. The coffin was bathed in the warmth of stage lights, surrounded by statues of the nation's most honored presidents and paintings of its historic moments.
Admirers filed past the closed coffin in minutes, ushered between red velvet ropes. The hands said it all: They were held over hearts or folded in front in gestures according respect to the former president.
"He's probably one of the reasons I'm in the military," said Roberto Atha, a Navy commander. "He reminded us what it meant to be an American."
Joanie Lomax, 46, and her mother, Joann Strickland, had driven from North Carolina for the occasion. After passing through the Rotunda, Strickland, 68, teared up as she recalled the president. Reagan's office, she said, had sent birthday cards to her mother every year, a source of constant amazement to her. Strickland said her mother never knew that the gestures came in response to a letter she herself had written to the president.
"It was worth it," Strickland said of the wait. "This is what we came for."
Jack Penalver drove from Raleigh, N.C., with his sister. He had cast his first presidential vote for Reagan, a leader who he said helped return pageantry to the country. Penalver, 39, said he cried during the procession yesterday but found the viewing in the Rotunda anti-climactic.
Still, he added: "I didn't come here for an emotional experience. I came here to honor a great man."
To a country now stunned by the prison abuse scandal in Iraq, Penalver said, he hopes that the president's death will remind Americans of the shining city on the hill of which Reagan so often spoke.
For those reasons and others, people were drawn to the Capitol into the morning. The subways were full at 11 p.m., as people flowed off trains at the Capitol South Station and into the streets, usually empty at that time of night. People stood calmly in line, some mopping their brows with hands or napkins.
Rick Siderman of Coral Springs, Fla., flew to Washington with his close friend Ruth Cosnotti and her son Dean, 8. Siderman said he campaigned for Reagan in 1980 and 1984. "He was a unique individual," Siderman said. He added half-jokingly, "I hope he appreciates this. I've been here five hours."
Ruth Cosnotti of Parkland, Fla., said that Reagan was the first presidential candidate she voted for, "and he's the reason I'm a Republican. This is the only occasion I would wait this long in line for, not even for a Grateful Dead concert."
Joe Kerstiens of suburban Chicago said he flew in to pay his respects to Reagan, who he called "probably the greatest president of the 20th century."
"I don't think there are any others that are still alive that I would probably make the trip for," Kerstiens said.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company